Blessed are the poor in Spirit

Matthew 5:3 says “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” For Anne Sutherland Howard this reveals a “third way” to approaching the questions of poverty and wealth, a way that does not make absolute the divide between rich and poor, nor in spiritualizing poverty. Instead, she says we can choose a spirituality of abundance in the face of a culture of scarcity.

Writing in this weeks Alban Institute e-newsletter, Sutherland Howard tells the story of a new parish priest, Christopher Wendell, in a wealthy Boston suburb which by any measure, particularly a global perspective, is “a wealthy congregation in a wealthy community in a wealthy state in a wealthy country.”

But instead of haranguing people for their wealth, or denying the reality of even nearby poverty to keep people from feeling uncomfortable, he “sees spiritual poverty as an avenue for the materially rich to recognize their relationship to the materially poor–the third way.”

Wendell says that the poor and wealthy interact all the time, the question is how do we Christians respond to the disparity?

For those in the “upper bands” of the spectrum of wealth–that is, anyone with education, work, enough to eat, and a place to sleep–Chris sees three possible choices.

“First,” he says, “There is denial. You can deny that the poor exist, you can turn your back. You can reduce yourself to living only within your own economic band; you can keep with ‘your kind.’ You can say: ‘I do the best I can within my band.’

“A second possibility is that you are unable to deny the difference in economic disparity, but you don’t know how to engage it. You are aware of inequality, you are aware of suffering, and you experience a sense of responsibility for this system in which you see the suffering of many. You know that you are not ‘the many,’ but you don’t know how implicated to feel, how responsible for it you are. This whole can of worms can be overwhelming. You can choose whether to enter or not, so you choose not to.”

“But there is another possibility, a third way,” he says. “You can respond with awareness to the spectrum of suffering–identification with people who are suffering to the point that you can’t choose not to be implicated. This identification is the opposite of guilt or shame. It is rooted in a sense of solidarity with everyone who suffers at the hands of forces they cannot control–in the recognition that we are part of everyone.

“I think Christianity invites us into that third way of being. It’s a way of being connected, a way of starting to close the distance in life experience between our own sufferings and the sufferings of the poor. It’s acknowledging that suffering is real and I’m part of it: both creating it and experiencing it. I call that third way ‘poverty of spirit.’ I want to help wealthy persons understand this third way so that they don’t jump back to denial or think that they have a choice about getting involved. I want to help people get from step two to step three, to see that as members of the human family we don’t really have a choice but to acknowledge our connections to each other.”

Wendell decribes his calling as an invitation for “people to recognize their spiritual poverty and start telling stories not only about their affluence but also about their need. That’s the first step toward justice.”

God’s love for all, the beloved community, is revealed in the beatitudes, says Chris. “The real purpose of the beatitudes is to reveal the solidarity among all people, despite the vast differences in human circumstances on this planet. The beatitudes aren’t just about ‘those other people’ who are different because they are poor or hungry or persecuted. They are also about how our own lives are made spiritually poor by the suffering of others.”

Read the rest here.

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